Muslim Hours at Municipal Swimming Pools in the West
by Daniel Pipes
Sun, 15 Jun 2003
updated Sat, 19 Apr 2008
I quote a French publication: “A swimming pool off-limits to men, with an exclusively female staff, and smoked windows. It’s not in Saudi Arabia but in France, in the fine town of Lille.” More interesting yet, this swimming pool is not a private concern but one of only four sponsored by the Lille municipality – which, by the way, has a woman mayor. “It’s a matter of modesty” explains a spokesman for the municipality, noting also that the women-only rules apply only during certain hours. A sign of things to come elsewhere? (June 15, 2003)
Dec. 4, 2003 update: A half year later, the Lille swimming pool continues to provoke discussion and confusion. Agence France-Presse reports today Jean-Marc Ayrault, parliamentary head of the Socialist party and mayor of Nantes, saying that “the rule is mixing the sexes” in municipal facilities. But while he himself refused to accede to Muslim demands for sex-segregated sessions at the pools, he also refused to condemn the actions of the socialist mayor of Lille, Martine Aubry, for permitting just that.
Dec. 12, 2003 update: The nearby town of Mons-en-Baroeul has ended the scheduled hours reserved for Muslim women in its municipal pool, in place since 1996, the mayor’s spokesman told Agence France-Presse. In fact, this decision was taken in September 2003, a result of the French national debate on “laïcism and the wearing of veils.”
Sohad Sarhan, left, and Manal Elsay cover the windows at North Seattle’s Meadowbrook Pool before the “Muslim Sister Swim” begins.
Aug. 14, 2005 update: Once a month on a Saturday, North Seattle’s Meadowbrook Pool hosts a “Muslim Sister Swim,” giving access only to women and children. The rental is paid for by the North Seattle Family Center. Stefan Sharkansky of the “Sound Politics” weblog did a bit of investigating and found that the North Seattle Family Center is “a unit of the Children’s Home Society, a non-profit that gets most of its money from various government sources.”
Sharkansky correctly points out that, as such, the center “should strictly comply with non-discrimination guidelines. Nevertheless, the Muslim Sister Swim is open exclusively to Muslims, no infidel women need apply. I asked a representative of the North Seattle Family Center to explain this, and she told me that it was to respect these immigrant women’s culture.”
Sharkansky concludes that “if there’s ever a reason for taxpayer dollars to be used to support an immigrant’s culture, it should be to support them in learning to shed whatever aspects of their culture are incompatible with American culture. The last thing we need to teach immigrants is to expect publicly-subsidized religious apartheid.”
Dawn Elmezyen, right, and her daughter Melanie Willis, 12, get ready to swim at the Cook/Douglass Recreation Center by covering the windows.
July 24, 2006 update: The Cook/Douglass Recreation Center pool at Rutgers University, a taxpayer-funded institution, has instituted Muslim women-only hours for two hours on Sundays. Swimmers pay $5 for each session, half of which goes to support the Noor-Ul-Iman School.
Dec. 9, 2006 update: The Thornton Heath Leisure Centre, a municipal facility in Croydon, a distant part of London, not only has women-only hours but also men-only. What makes it truly cutting edge is this: during the segregated hours, all swimmers must wear Muslim-style swimming gear. Yes, by decree of the Croydon Council, for two hours on Sunday afternoon swimming shorts that hide the navel and extend below the knee are de rigeur. And when it’s women’s hours, they must cover from neck to ankle.
Some members responded furiously. “I turned up and saw a sign saying it was closing early for Muslim afternoon – I couldn’t believe it,” commented Daniel Foley, 44. “I think it is preposterous that a council should be encouraging this type of segregation over municipal facilities,” said Alex Craig, 34. “It seems the issue here is over modesty. Surely if Muslims want to swim then they should just turn up with their modest swimwear at the same time as everyone else. To make a special provision for them is just ridiculous and strikes me as imposing an ‘Us and them’ mentality which is wrong.” In contrast, the Croydon Mosque thought Muslim-garb swimming sessions a grand idea. Its spokesman said: “Muslims are not allowed to show intimate parts of their body. This is non-negotiable. Muslims have as much right to go swimming as anyone else.” And a spokesman for Croydon Council said: “We are not giving preference to any one group but simply taking practical steps to create access to all.”
Apr. 17, 2008 update: So far, all the incidents have concerned keeping men and women apart; presumably, non-Muslims could swim in their gender- appropriate session. Today comes news from the Clissold Leisure Centre in Stoke Newington, East London, where a father and his 10-year-old son were denied entrance to a pool because of their not being Muslims. They had encountered the “men-only modesty session” taking place every Sunday from 8 a.m. to 9.30 a.m. at the municipal pool. At least two websites advertize the Sunday morning session as being for Muslim men only. The father, known only as David T, made the mistake of turning up at 9 a.m. on April 13. He recounts what happened:
I arrived at the pool to discover that they were holding what staff described to me as “Muslim men-only swimming.” I asked whether my son and I could go as we were both male. I was told that the session was for Muslims only and that we could not be admitted. I asked to speak to the duty manager, who confirmed that this was the case. … I asked what would happen if I turned up and insisted I was Muslim. The manager suggested that they might ask the Muslims swimming if they minded my son and I swimming with them. If they didn’t object, we might be allowed in.
Clissold Leisure Centre later apologized. “Staff cannot ask your religion on entrance and you won’t be refused entry if you don’t appear to be Muslim.”